x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Arab Spring pays a visit to Harvard

Weekend gathering of the university's Arab alumni focuses on the region's upheaval and its future.

CAMBRIDGE, US //There is no turning back in the Arab world from the upheavals that have convulsed the region over the past eight months.

Where this change will lead and who will lead it was the focus of a gathering of Arab alumni over the weekend at Harvard University and a roster of speakers that included a Nobel Peace laureate, a former secretary general of the Arab League and youthful opposition activists from Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.

The broad consensus suggested overdue regional change is now irreversible. There were also changes at the Harvard Arab alumni weekend's fifth incarnation where schedules, normally top-heavy with Arab leaders and royalty, instead featured opposition figures, rebels and anti-establishment activists. And even those who previously played important roles in Arab regimes were taking up the mantle.

"Change is the name of the game," Amr Musa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League and a former foreign minister under Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, told a handful of reporters after giving his keynote speech on Friday. "The mood is different. People have challenged their regimes."

The future of the region was in the hands of its youth, said Mr Musa, 75. Nevertheless, as an Egyptian presidential hopeful, he rejected a suggestion from the audience that in that vein, he should not seek the presidency.

The annual Harvard Alumni weekend was originally meant as a way for former and current Arab students at one of the world's top universities to network, "deconstruct myths about the Arab world and leverage expertise in the US", according to Shahm Al Wir, the president of the Harvard Arab Alumni Association, which organises the weekend.

But this year, the upheaval of the Arab Spring completely dominated proceedings. Even the term itself came under scrutiny. Marwan Muasher of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former deputy prime minister of Jordan, worried that it was overly optimistic, and that it implied inevitable progress that, he said, was no means assured.

Nevertheless, he also suggested that Arab regimes could now be neatly divided into those "whose time are up and those who still have some time".

Others embraced the term.

"It is indeed an Arab Spring," said Tawakkul Karman, the Yemeni human rights activist and opposition figure who, along with two other women, shared this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Ms Karman said the nature of the Arab protests, the leadership and role shown by youth and women had exposed a new face of the Arab world, that Arabs "are able to be effective and active members of this small global village. It is effectively not an Arab spring but a world spring".

That newfound sense of people power, said Marwan Maalouf, a US-based Lebanese activist, had made Arab youth "proud to be Arabs again".

Rami Nakhle, a Syrian opposition activist, said the biggest achievement of recent events has been the "politicisation of the youth" across the region. Technology, he said, had made it impossible for regimes to hide their actions.

This year, Harvard has a record 108 students from the Arab world.